Winnipeg Mega Train Show 2019

Eight members of the Echo Valley Railroad Guild from Regina, Saskatchewan attended the Winnipeg Mega Train Show 2019 held at the Red River Exhibition in Winnipeg, Manitoba on the weekend of September 28 and 29, 2019. There were three from the Mainliners N-scale group and five from the Free-mo group. In addition, several family members participated. It was another very good show. The cool and often wet weather helped increase the attendance. As was the case in 2018, we were delighted with the hospitality extended to us and enjoyed spending time meeting show guests, shopping at the many vendor tables and taking in the modelling skills of fellow show participants.

Here are a few pictures taken at the show:


Adjustable Module Legs

One of the most aggravating aspects of setting up a modular model railroad at train shows is the need to adjust the module legs. This is necessary to ensure that the tops of the modules line up and are reasonably level, compensating for any unevenness of the floor. I have experienced this at venues with very smooth and level floors (such as a curling rink) as well as at venues that have very uneven flooring.

This process usually entails a lot of crawling around on the floor with a wrench or screwdriver or, if you are lucky, bending over with a screwdriver if the leg adjustments can be accessed from above. Needless to say, this is quite hard on the knees and back. The more uneven is the floor, the harder it is on one's body and the longer it takes.

I have had the pleasure of participating in a few events at which members of the Spokane, WA Free-mo group were present. I noticed that they had devised a couple of different systems by which their module legs could be adjusted from a standing position. Once of these systems involved the use of nested PVC pipes which have an internal threading mechanism. To adjust, one simply reaches just below the top of the module which is at hip-height and turning the top portion of the PVC pipe to raise or lower the leg. The other system consists of a threaded rod which has at its top end a nut. Using a cordless drill equipped with a socket wrench one can raise or lower the leg with ease.

As I see it, the advantages and disadvantages of these systems are as follows:

Adjustable PVC Pipe Legs
  • Easy to adjust
  • Easy to explain to others how to use
  • The legs are quite heavy
  • The existing legs that our Free-mo group uses would need to be scrapped
  • The PVC pipes are fairly expensive
  • One of the older gentlemen from Spokane pointed out that his grip is not what it was when he was younger, making it difficult for him to turn the PVC pipe

Threaded Rod System
  • Easy to adjust
  • Easy to explain to others how to use
  • Can easily be added to existing wooden legs
  • Are reasonably cheap (about C$ 6.75 per leg)
  • Easy to build
  • Not difficult to adjust if one’s grip strength is weak
  •  None that I can think of

Having concluded that the threaded rod system is the way to go, I retrofitted the legs on my Aspen Free-mo module with the new system. At the next train show where our Free-mo group participated I demonstrated the simplicity and benefits of my module legs. Everyone in our group agreed that it would be a good idea to install these on all our modules. I undertook to install them on everyone’s modules except for one where the owner elected to install these himself. The reason I volunteered to do the work was that it seemed to me that any benefits from the adjustable legs is not in having them installed on only one or two modules but having them installed on every module. Human nature being what it is, leaving this to each member to do himself might have resulted in some procrastinating while others got on with getting it done.

There is an idiom sometimes attributed to Cervantes in The History of Don Quixote, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” At the train show following the installation of the adjustable legs on all modules our group estimated we saved at least 45 minutes of setup time but, better yet, our knees and backs were thanking us.

I greatly appreciate the creativity of Alan Cunningham and Jerry Barsness of the Spokane, WA Free-mo group and for taking the time to explain their great ideas.

3D Printed Items for my Model Railroad

My 3D printer has already come in very handy for printing items for my model railroad.

These include:

Before painting I spray all items evenly with Rustoleum 2X Ultra Cover grey primer.

Shipping containers – a future Free-mo module that I plan to build will portray a container terminal. For this I will need a large number of containers. The cost of acquiring sufficient commercial HO shipping containers to make convincing stacks of shipping containers would be prohibitive. My plan is to 3D print many “ends” of containers to serve as a facade and then placing full-size commercial containers on the top. One of my first 3D print projects was to download an HO shipping container design from Thingiverse (credit: phildc). I printed a full-sized version (the larger one painted blue in the following picture). I then modified the design to effectively cut off 2/3 of the container (the ones painted green, white and blue).

Chain-link fence – in the past I have used the excellent kits made by Walthers for making a convincing chain link fence. However, I always struggle with how to make the vertical and horizontal fence posts square and how to fasten them together (my use of cyanoacrylate glue, or “super glue” has to be curtailed because I have a respiratory allergy to the fumes). By designing and 3D printing these I get nice square fence posts to which it is easy to glue the tulle chain link material using Weldbond adhesive.

An example of a fence which I struggled to make straight:

 The 3D printed fence in 4 steps:
The printed fence still attached to its sacrificial "raft"

after the raft has been removed and discarded

Weldbond glue has been spread on the backside of the fence using a toothpick and the fence laid on top of tulle material (this material is what bridal veils are made of)

the completed fence section ready for installation

the installed fence (behind the "SLOW" sign); the rolling gate is from the Walthers Guard House kit which is also were the building is from

another angle

Pole top transformers – I designed these pole top transformers myself in Tinkercad:

Switch machines and adjacent hut:

Tree plant stand – after watching an excellent video by Gerry Leone on Model Railroad Video Plus in which Gerry outlines the use of foam pipe insulation to hold trees for painting I came up with what I believe to be an improvement on the design – a rack that can hold trees upside down (sometimes necessary if you wish to soak the tree armatures in some sort of liquid to soften them so they straighten out) or right-side up (for spray painting and applying ground foam).

note that these can be interlocked with each other, enabling the expansion of the painting rack

hanging the tree upside down as is sometimes necessary; note that the 4 wooden dowels are only added if this setup is desired

turned over with the wooden dowels removed

two interlocking racks ready to be attached to each other

after being attached

I look forward to printing many more items with my 3D printer. It is turning out to be a very useful tool but has not become another hobby unto itself.

3D Printing – Part 2

Part 2

Following quite a lot of research online, including watching a number of helpful You Tube videos about selecting and using 3D printers, I purchased a Flashforge Finder 3D printer through Amazon. This printer meets all the above criteria:
  •  Cost was under US$400.
  • My Finder arrived four business days following the order. It was very well packaged and had excellent instructions. I printed my first test object 10 minutes after unpacking the printer – a cube which printed flawlessly. I did have the advantage of having watched a couple of excellent YouTube videos on the unpacking and setup of this very printer as well as how to use the software. Had I used the instructions that came with the printer I would probably have printed my first object in 20 minutes. The paper “getting started” instructions were quite good. The online instructions are much more comprehensive. There are minimal “Chinglish” errors in the instructions – no surprise, the printer is made in China.
  • The Finder uses only PLA (Polylactic Acid) filament. It will not print ABS or any other substance that requires a heated surface on which the object is printed. From my research I concluded that, for a starter printer, PLA would serve my needs. It will glue with the same types of welding adhesive that is used with styrene. It can also be superglued or epoxied. Printing PLA produces no noxious fumes. It can easily be painted with acrylic or oil-based paints or it can be spray painted. PLA is a thermoplastic aliphatic polyester derived from renewable biomass typically from fermented plant starch such as corn and is biodegradable.
  • My research revealed that there is another raw material that many 3D printers will also use ABS. ABS is not plant based and is much more resilient if used out of doors (LEGO bricks are made of ABS). However, the outdoors which has exposure to ultraviolet rays and moisture is not an environment to which my model railroad will be exposed. When printing with ABS the surface on which the print is made must be heated. Also, noxious fumes are released when printing ABS.  It seemed to me that as a beginner, ABS is was a complication that I needed.
  • There are also 3D printers that use a liquid resin for their raw material. These printers use ultraviolet light to solidify and cure the resin to form the object being printed. I understand that, for a comparable price, these produce much higher resolution prints than those which use plastic filament. However, I also understand that the liquid resin is very messy and produces noxious fumes. I did not want to be dealing with these attributes – I suspect that the printer would quickly fall into disuse because of the hassle of handling and cleaning up the resin.
  • As with other 3D printers, the Finder can print using standard, high or ultra high resolution. For small detail items like an HO scale rooftop air conditioner I find the high resolution to be quite satisfactory, especially when the object has been painted and weathered. As PLA files and sands easily, I will sometimes give it a quick smoothing using a sanding sponge or fine file. It is normally necessary to use a sharp knife such as an Olfa knife or Exacto blade to clean up the places where the object is attached to the “raft” – a sacrificial layer of plastic which is normally printed beneath the object.
  • My printing success rate has been very high. A couple of objects I designed need to have the design tweaked either because I made a mistake, or I wasn’t completely satisfied with how it looked. An example of this was the width, height and spacing of the insulators on a pole-top transformer I designed. 
  • The only attributes of the Finder that could be improved are the relatively small maximum print size (140 mm cube - which won't be an issue for 99% of the things I want to create) and the built-in filament spool holder. 
  • The most economical way to purchase filament is on 1 kg spools. The spool of filament that comes with the Finder is 600 g and is physically smaller that a 1 kg spool. There is built-in compartment at the back of the Finder which neatly conceals a 600 g spool. Thingiverse has several nice designs for the Finder which can be downloaded for free and printed with the Finder. I chose a design by Mathew Haigis (m1s2h3 on Thingiverse) and printed it. This design allows for a 1 kg spool to be hung on the side of the printer. This has the additional benefit of being able to easily see that the filament is unrolling freely and to see when the filament is running low. I later designed and printed an add-on piece for this design to serve as a filament guide to avoid the filament coming off the sides of a new spool – the filament is tightly wound on the spool and has a tendency to “spring” off the spool when the packaging is removed.
  • The Finder has a nice feature for levelling the printing surface. It is semi-automatic in that it guides the user step-by-step from its nice colour screen on what to do to level the plate.
  •  The Finder has a very well-designed printing surface in that the top surface is easily slid out of its holder. This allows the operator to withdraw the whole printing surface from the printer and carry it to a workbench where a putty knife or other hard flat object can be used to pry the object from the surface. As this often requires quite a bit of force it seems to me that it is much better to be able to do this on a workbench that reefing on the delicate mechanism of the printer. In addition, the removable surface allows for easy cleaning of the surface if this becomes necessary. To ensure good print results it is necessary to ensure that the object becomes well adhered to the printing surface. If it were to slip or lift the print job would be ruined. From my research and my experience, it is best to rub a glue stick on the printer surface rather than the alternative of using painters masking tape which I find produces inconsistent results. The Finder comes with a glue stick included. I find that most of the glue remains stuck to the surface when an object is removed so it is not necessary to reapply the glue for each print job.
  • There are two types of software needed to design and then print 3D objects. Some software can do both, but it is easier to describe the software needs separately. Say you find an object on Thingiverse that you want to print. You would download a “.STL” file to your computer (those on Thingiverse need to be unzipped from a zip file – very easy to do). You then need to open the object with software that can position the object in an optimum way to print. For example, a pyramid-shaped object will print much better if the point of the pyramid is facing up instead of down. If it were facing down the software will add a series of sacrificial supports. The supports are necessary because the printer needs to print on something – it can’t print on thin air. When positioned optimally the software then slices the object into many horizontal slices (the higher the resolution and the larger the object the greater the number of slices).  The software then produces a “.G” file which the printer needs to do the actual print. This can be sent to the Finder either directly through a USB cable, Wi-Fi or a USB flash drive. So far, I have not tried the Wi-Fi. I tend to use a USB flash drive most often.

If you want to design your own object from scratch or modify a design that you have received from someone else you will need software that is used to design three dimensional objects and save them as a “.STL” file. There are many such programs available, ranging from very sophisticated programs used for commercial designs which cost many thousands of dollars or free ware. I like Tinkercad. It is used only in “the cloud” online and is not downloaded to your computer It is hosted by Autodesk the makers of the high-end software Autocad. I first learned of Tinkercad from watching some of Luke Towan’s excellent model railroading videos. I discovered a series of extremely well-produced YouTube videos by Promo Ambitions These teach Tinkercad in a very logical step-by-step way. These are some of the best instructional videos I have watched – on any topic. I was designing my own simple objects using Tinkercad within three hours.

I am absolutely delighted with this printer and don’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is looking for their first 3D printer.

3D Printing – Part 1

Part 1

The model railroading hobby comprises many aspects of other hobbies including carpentry, electronics and, with respect to creating believable scenery, aspects of art and craft techniques. The creation of scenery involves many raw materials such paint, styrene, plaster, stains, ink, wood, plants, ground foam and static grass.  Some of these may be purchased ready to use and others may be made by the hobbyist – in later posts I shall outline how I create my own ground foam, static grass and ground cover matting.

Another key part of creating believable scenery comes from buildings, vehicles and models of other man-made objects and structures. It is hard to have too many details in a model railroad scene. As with certain raw materials, objects and structures may be purchased commercially in kit or ready-made form while others may be scratch built.

My good friend, John F. who lives in Calgary, built his own 3D printer a few years ago. Each time we visit John and his wife Hilda, John has created some new item with his printer. John is not a model railroader. His principal hobby is ham radio. He designs and builds various apparatus that add to his enjoyment of the hobby. Often one or more of the components or even moving parts are printed on his 3D printer. John has been encouraging me to get into 3D printing.

The only thing that had been holding me back until now is that I didn’t want 3D printing to turn into a hobby unto itself. I had no desire to build my own 3D printer using parts from China or even to purchase a kit and assemble it myself. I wanted to purchase a 3D printer, plug it in, turn it on and be able to print detail objects for my model railroad hobby within less than 30 minutes. I knew that having a 3D printer would also come in handy for making parts to repair or improve various household items.

In May 2019 we spent a week at a condo in the Columbia Valley of British Columbia. Being an early riser, I have up to three hours of quiet time to myself each day before the rest of the family wake up. I researched 3D printers online with the aid of websites such as Luke Towan’s Boulder Creek Railroad and YouTube.

My research helped me decide that I would purchase my first 3D printer if I could find one that met the following criteria:
  • Cost less than C$1,000 – I didn’t want to spend a lot of money only to find that the printer wasn’t as useful as I had hoped.
  • Be completely “plug and play” – I wanted a relatively short learning curve not only to operate the printer but also to be able to design my own parts.
  • Use material that can be easily glued to itself, to styrene or wood – as many of the items I would be making are to be affixed to other objects on the model railroad it must be easy to fasten them.
  • Use material that can easily be painted using acrylics, oils or spray cans.
  •  Use material that does not produce noxious or dangerous smells.
  • Use material that cannot spill and damage flooring – the most logical location for my 3D printer is on top of a metre-high bookshelf located just outside my model railroad room because it is in close proximity, is not dusty environment and any noise created by the printer would not be bothersome (many larger or more complex objects can take several hours to print).
  • Have a very high printing success rate – I didn’t want to be wasting my time with a lot of trial and error.
  • Use very easy to use software to slice the objects and do the printing (this software can be different from the software used to design the objects).

Here are a few of the 3D printers I considered: